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¡Cuba, Si! ¡Yanquis, Si! Visiting Cuba in the Age of Obama

How to (prematurely) celebrate the US-Cuba thaw

By Riley Lynch

Hey, you, in the Che Guevara t-shirt. I think I’ve seen you around. Was it at the Blue Angel Café? They were playing The Motorcycle Diaries. I was the guy on the couch trying to eat a burrito without elbow-checking the people next to me. Or was it revolutionary trova night at Fonda del Che? Or that benefit at Club Infinito where they played Fidel: The Untold Story? I love that scene where el Comandante is interviewed in his pajamas by Edward R. Murrow.

You’re American, right? I mean norteamericano. Does that include Canada? I mean estadounidense. You know: From the only country in the world that doesn’t let its citizens visit Cuba. I’ve been wanting to go ever since I saw The Buena Vista Social Club. I have this recurring dream of cruising down El Malecon de la Habana in an Edsel convertible.

They’re talking about passing a law in the U.S. Congress that would legalize travel to Cuba. Not just for Cuban-Americans: President Obama did that by executive order. Travel restrictions for the rest of us are part of the embargo.

Technically, it’s not illegal to travel to Cuba, just to spend money there. It’s been like that since 1962. The embargo was imposed the year after East Germany built the Berlin Wall. Earth to Washington: The Cold War is over.

Of course, people go anyway. 50,000 or so estadounidenses visited Cuba illegally last year. But it’s tricky. U.S.-based travel Web sites don’t book flights to Cuba. You’ll have to go through a local agency or airline. Be prepared to pay in cash.

Speaking of cash: Bring it. Your ATM card is no good over there. Neither are U.S.-issued credit cards nor travelers cheques. Expect to change $1.24 USD for 1 CUC, the peso convertible, a.k.a. el chavito. You’ll get a better rate with quetzales or any non-U.S. currency.

Cuba is expensive compared to Guatemala: Budget travelers should expect to spend 50 CUC a day. Others will spend twice that. Staying in casas particulares (Xela language-school alumni will recognize these as “homestays”) rather than hotels will save you a lot. Border agents may ask where you are staying, so reserve before you go.

One more thing: Don’t let anybody stamp your passport coming or leaving: Unless and until the law changes, you could pay a US$7,500 fine.

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